Hello, my name is Lotus Mary Alexandra Lee Morgan and I am an addict. I am also a buddhist yogi. Here is some radical honesty about the intersection of my yoga practice and my recovery.
The yoga came first and the recovery came later. I officially wanted to look at yoga more closely about six years ago. I was accepted into the Living Yoga Training program at Satchidananda Ashram-Yogaville in August 2014. With that came a vow to live according to the yamas and niyamas (basic yogic codes of conduct), to maintain a vegetarian diet and to not engage in mind altering substances for one month. Hatha (asana, postures) and meditation requirements were also in place.
I extended my stay after the month flew by because I felt as though I was only just beginning to dip my toe into truly immersing myself into the practice. I ended up staying for a year. Along with a traditional understanding of yoga, I cultivated a practice, meaningful bonds, memorable moments, a fresh perspective, a new mode to operate from, a new devotion. All the while, the entire time I lived in Yogaville, I was sneaking to my car any moment that I could to get high. If any Yogaville community members or clergy are reading this, please consider this a confession. And an apology.
Basically, I was high from the ages of 19-29. I wanted to stop. I tried to stop multiple times. I attempted moderation, regulation and boundaries. All of my efforts resulted in bingeing.
I made excuses. I lied, both to myself and to others. I stole. I made reckless decisions that could’ve impacted my life negatively. I was stuck in the realm of hungry ghosts and attached to a sensation I intensely romanticized. I could never get high enough. Getting high was always on my mind, always the goal.
Eventually, at the cusp of thirty years old, I arrived at a place where I was ready to change my behavior and do something different. The road was rocky with confusion, intense emotional discomfort and more than one relapse. My daily and social life looked and felt strange. Some of my “friends” receded and disappeared. I cried a lot. I felt lost, in the dark and disoriented. I was scared and I didn’t like being sober. But, with the support of my partner and the help of a 12-step program, I found clarity and freedom.
The road of recovery is different every day. The two and a half years that I have been sober have been filled with all kinds of days and a lot of vulnerability. The first year and a half I was inadvertently and unconsciously eager to be okay. I was anxious to be normal, whatever that means. I wanted to blend in like nothing ever happened. I wanted to know who I was. I wanted to be this high-functioning person who reads and meditates daily and cooks every meal from scratch and is always pleasant and is always on time and is this ultra flexible yogi like my Yogaville friends who inspire me so much. Ha! (I am literally laughing right now.)
Even to this day I struggle to be in my body. Sometimes my energy is low. Most of the time I am not motivated to do what I know is holistically nourishing. I am still adjusting. I am still learning how to be present. Fulfilling basic needs and responsibilities are huge achievements for me, let alone getting to my mat.
But, listen to this: getting to my mat is now my focus. Meditation is now my goal! That, to me, is true sobriety. That is the juicy intersection of yoga and recovery. Maybe my meditation is inconsistent. Perhaps I don’t get to my mat for 9-21 days and won’t get into padmasana anytime soon, or ever. Maybe my pranayama is lacking. Maybe I could be reading the sutras more. Maybe my ahimsa practice toward myself could greatly improve. Maybe chanting more would help. Maybe I don’t feel like serving others or communing with sangha because I feel overwhelmed. Maybe when you say “love and light” I feel a little annoyed sometimes.
Yoga is always on my mind and always the goal. To me, that is everything.
If you or someone you know is struggling with addiction I invite you to seek help immediately. Call a relative or a friend. There are many, many resources. Here are a few that are specifically for Queer People of Color in recovery:
I love building community, feel free to connect with me on instagram @lotuslovemonster (personal) and @pedi_preistess_hc, I’m Holy Chic’s newest nail artist!
I would like to thank Project Yoga Richmond for supporting my home practice during this weird and trying time. You are an immense blessing to our community. Bless you all.
On the cusp of our 10 year anniversary (10 years!), we’re working on a new look and we can’t wait to share it with you. Here’s a sneak peek! It’s a little cryptic but we want to keep you on the edge of your seat. Stay tuned!
P.S. We’ve been loving our products from Sticker Mule and they just released 3 new tools, Trace, Upscale, & Redraw to help anyone create high quality, print-ready images. Check them out!
Let’s start at the beginning…why massage therapy as a career?
I became a massage therapist per the suggestion of my mother in law. After casually massaging her calf from an injury, she saw a talent in me that I had yet to recognize. So much so, she encouraged me to look into schooling. At this time, my career path was in a state of flux and I figured this field resonated with me. I have always been an affectionate person and have fond memories of getting scalp massages from my dad when I was an anxious child and couldn’t sleep. I feel a deep sense of gratitude and fulfillment to have found a path that allows me to discover and heal myself and others.
How does being a gay black man affect your work?
Identity is something I have long struggled with in the face of societal pressures and expectations. I try to not allow the label of a gay black male define me, as these are immutable characteristics. There is no denying they play a role in how others perceive me and how I perceive myself. Each comes with their own benefits and drawbacks. Being gay may put some at ease, as they may see me as non threatening, but for others it may bring discomfort. The same goes for being male or black. Many ascribe ideas of strength, power or aggression with these identities and shy away or gravitate towards them as a result. I try to not take it personally and generally focus on being a better human (perhaps I may even upend their expectations.)
Massage has helped me understand my body, how it works, and accept my strengths and limitations. Identifying and accepting where I am but always looking for progress. In the world of massage it is important to meet someone where they are and work within their comfort zone to slowly break down the physical and mental barriers to build trust and bring forth healing. While I may not always enjoy these preconceived notions and don’t condone prejudice, I accept people have their own stories and my role is to make them comfortable in such an intimate setting.
A nervous, fearful, intimidated person doesn’t make for a good massage. No matter what. I must navigate my experience as a health professional with respect and focus on the work I do and the impact I have on others.
Has your job changed in the last few months?
My job has certainly changed over the past few months. I had to close for a few months due to Covid-19. Now, I practice heightened levels of caution in proceeding with my services. We wear face coverings and sanitation has been enhanced to ensure safe service. Extra time is allotted for this. Some techniques must be modified to accommodate wearing a mask. It can get a bit stuffy, but it is manageable. The safety and comfort of my clients is paramount and it is essential to follow protocols to ensure we all stay well.
Are there any common misconceptions you encounter in regards to self-care?
Self care is important as it allows you to find personal peace and balance. Thus giving you more to fuel yourself and provide assistance to others. You are no good to anyone if you’re not good to yourself first. At the end of the day you only have your body and mind. Strengthening and soothing these two allow you to navigate challenges and achieve goals with greater ease. The biggest misconception is that self care is a luxury. Self care is a way to maintain peace and balance within. It empowers us to face life’s challenges with strength and grace.
In your line of work you probably have a unique perspective on the relationship between stress and the body. What have you learned?
Stress manifests itself in the tissue and we carry it everywhere. Oftentimes without noticing. The area you feel the pain is oftentimes not the root of the cause. We call this “referred pain.”
I like to think of a relationship. When your significant other is upset they show signs. They may even act like they’re fine. You can do whatever to address the problem directly but they just don’t let it go. Many times it was something seemingly unrelated that happened in a different place or time that caused them to be upset. Connect the dots to see how they are related and don’t dismiss it because you don’t see the relation. Discover the underlying cause of what is manifesting this reaction and work within their boundaries to find a resolution.
What advice do you have for those who can’t afford massage therapy on how to pursue mindfulness, healing and stress relief?
My advice is to start connecting with yourself through touch and alone time. No tools or money are required to massage yourself or use items around your home. There is a certain level of empowerment in understanding what hurts or feels good on your body. Everyone’s perception and tolerance for discomfort is different. No one is better at knowing what hurts than you. This process builds understanding and trust into your perception of what is “normal” or “extreme.” It’s all about finding the balance within you. Wherever you are.
My advice is to find a local establishment like Project Yoga Richmond that offers donation based/sliding scale services. Free online resources such on youtube and social media offer simple at home tips and tricks for at home wellness. Using tools around the home such as tennis balls or purchasing a foam roller go a long way to relieve stress and target sore and tired muscles. Free guided meditation apps such Insight Timer, The Mindfulness App and Headspace allow you to check in/check out at your convenience and assist in creating positive habits.
Akeem Hutcherson graduated from the University of Richmond’s massage therapy program in 2014. He hopes to cultivate mindfulness within his clients as to how their bodies carry the stress of life and work toward balance and healing. Find him on Facebook, Instagram and at www.fasciafocusmassage.com.
Several years ago, I was just getting back into the groove of a regular yoga practice when I dropped into a class taught by PYR ambassador Sue Agee, who was seated at the front of the room with a whiteboard and some dry-erase markers. I imagine that anyone reading this who has practiced with Sue is nodding along already. That whiteboard is a sign that some wisdom is about to get dropped.
Even if you’ve never cracked open The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, you’ve probably heard a teacher offer some variation on the idea presented in sutra 1.2 that yoga is the calming (or the stilling, cessation, restraint) of the fluctuations (or modifications, changes, etc) of the mind. And if you’ve ever emerged from savasana with a blissfully quiet brain, you know it to be true. But how does it work?
Sutra 1.12 holds the answer, and it was the focus of Sue’s lesson that day. These mental modifications are restrained by practice (abhyasa) and non-attachment (vairagya.) Abhyasa–practice–is frequently translated as “steadiness of effort.” Easy enough to understand, right? But non-attachment? That one’s trickier. Sue broke it down like this:
Abhyasa: Never give up.
Vairagya: Always let go.
Never give up. Always let go.
To do yoga is to do both of these at once, all the time. Never give up; always let go.
I left class that day and wrote this mantra in my journal. It got me through a difficult year, and I return to it often in challenging times. During these last six months (six! months!), as the covid pandemic has changed all of our lives in countless ways, the simplicity and flexibility of this definition of yoga have changed my practice both on and off the mat.
Never give up. Roll out my mat whether I feel like it or not. Show up–for work, for personal commitments, for my partner, for the dog who needs to be walked even though it’s August in Virginia. Answer the phone for a conversation I don’t feel like having. Open the zoom link. Put on the mask. Wash my hands, wash my hands, wash my hands.
Always let go. Roll out my mat in the middle of the living room because it’s the only spot with enough space, even though my partner is on a conference call in the next room and the TV is on and the dog is smooshing a drooly toy against my leg. Let go of the notion that I need solitude and silence to be able to practice at home. Let go of routines. Let go of momentum. Let go of plans. Let go of the definition of ‘normal.’ Let go. Let go. Let go.
Rebecca and her dog, Jasper, as a yoga bolster.
These last six months have shown me so many things I didn’t realize I was attached to. So many stories and expectations and habits that were familiar and comfortable. I didn’t want it to be true that I needed to let go of them, and so many of the changes (so! many! changes!) have been hard. There are days I have to let go of the same thing a dozen times before noon: the longing to wake up feeling totally refreshed, the thought that maybe I’ll just grab lunch out with a friend, the desire to plan a spontaneous trip. 2020 is so not what I signed up for! Constantly finding new things to let go of is annoying, and it’s challenging, and I am often pretty mad at it if I’m being honest. It’s hard.
It’s hard, and it’s worth it. Because the thing about letting go is that it too is a practice that requires steadiness of effort, and it does indeed result in calming. I won’t pretend that this pandemic has brought new excitement or fun to my life or that I feel particularly awesome on any given day. But I feel better now than I did when I was trying to shoehorn this reality into old framework. I feel better in the moment after each letting-go than I did the moment before it. I feel better letting my dog be my bolster than trying to convince him to stay off my mat.
Every letting-go is an exhale that opens up space for something new to arrive.
Never give up.
Rebecca Schinsky is the PYR Board President, a yoga teacher and the Executive Director of Business Development at Book Riot.
No one understands back pain until they have suffered from it. Back pain is extremely debilitating and can impact people of all ages. Though older adults are more likely to suffer, young people, especially those that were injured or live an active lifestyle, are also subject back issues.
A number of different factors including bulging disk, damaged sciatica, muscle strain, or even arthritis can cause pain and limit functionality. No matter the reason, it can interrupt everyday tasks and responsibilities. Unfortunately, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all cure. However, many people experience relief with the regular practice of a few simple yoga poses. Here are five yoga poses to try if you experience chronic back pain.
This pose is gentle, slow and will stretch and mobilize the spine. To do this:
- Get on all fours and place your wrists underneath your shoulders and knees underneath your hips.
- Next, balance your weight evenly on all four points and inhale as you let your stomach drop.
- Exhale as you tuck your chin into your chest and draw your belly button into your spine while arching your back.
2. Downward Dog
Another great pose that will stretch and mobilize the spine, downward dog is especially effective for people experiencing sciatica pain. To do this:
- Get on all fours, place your hand in alignment under your wrists and your knees under your hips.
- Then press into your hands, tuck your toes under and lift your knees up.
- Bring your sitting bones toward the ceiling, keep a slight bend in your knees and lengthen your spine and tailbone.
- Continue pressing firmly into your hands and keep your head in line with your upper arms.
It’s important to do this pose correctly so that you don’t end up hurting your back more as the cobra pose puts pressure on your sciatica. This pose will also help you if you are suffering from a slipped disc. To do this:
- Lie on your stomach with your hands under your shoulders and your fingers facing forward.
- Draw your arms in tightly to your chest making sure that your elbow does not go to the side.
- Next, press into your hands and slowly lift your head, chest, and shoulders while still maintaining a slight bend in your elbows.
- Make sure you release your back to your mat as you exhale.
The locust pose is a great pose to strengthen your back and prevent further injury. To do this:
- Lie on your stomach with your arms next to your torso and your palms facing up.
- Make sure that your big toes are touching and that your heels are to the side.
- Then, place your forehead slightly on the floor and lift your head, chest, and arms.
- If you want to deepen the pose, lift your legs and interlace your fingers behind your back.
This backbend pose is restorative and stimulating. Not only does this backbend work to strengthen the spine and glutes, but it can also relieve headaches. To do this:
- Lie on your back with your knees bent and heels drawn into your sitting bones.
- Rest your arms next to your body and press your feet and arms into the floor as you lift your tailbone up.
- Lift until your thighs are parallel to the floor and either go up and down for a minute or hold this pose for a minute (or as long as you can).
If you are suffering from back pain, add these yoga poses to your daily routine. Take your practice a step further by signing up for online virtual classes with Project Yoga Richmond or access recorded offerings anytime through their Patreon page.
About the Author
Kelsey Simpson enjoys writing about things that can help others. She currently works and writes for Pennswood Village, a retirement community in PA. She lives in South Jersey and is the proud companion to two German Shepherds and spends her free time volunteering in dog shelters.
What can we become aware of? We can become aware of what is inside and what is outside, and how those dance together. There is infinity within and without.
With the rise of social media, the information of which we can become aware is expanding rapidly. We can instantly become aware of atrocities all over the world. Our hearts can break in every moment for the suffering of our fellow human beings.
I, like most people, limit what I allow myself to become aware of in regards to the massive tragedies of our modern world, for the sake of staying grounded. I know that my nervous system can only take so much.
I also practice Kundalini Yoga under the guidance of Holly Henty at Project Yoga Richmond in order to expand my capacity for awareness. It helps me maintain the health of my physical, emotional and etheric bodies so that I do not collapse into the sleepy, numb state of unawareness.
This practice also expands my capacity to hold the dualities of life. For instance, Sat Nam: truth is our essence. Somewhere, before the birth of all things and after the death of all things, is an infinite source. And yet, out of this pure source, lies are also born. Our world is filled with deceit and misinformation. We exist simultaneously in the fabric of the truth of our essence, and also the relative reality of the physical plane that creates edges around bullets that tear flesh when they meet.
On May 25 our collective awareness was blown open with the death of George Floyd. The strength of my nervous system, bolstered by my Kundalini yoga practice, became more relevant than ever. I needed it in order to hold the pain and conflict that I saw and felt. As the movement for Black lives gained traction in our city, I could feel in my heart that I was called to join. I could not stay home. People were fighting for their lives on our streets and my heart was with them. To stay home would have been an act of deceit against my own Self.
I found myself standing face to face with riot police, and all I could think to do was pray. I don’t mean pray in the pleading sense, I mean to pray in the meditative sense. I put my hands together over my heart center, and I stayed with it. I could feel my heart, loving and breathing. I brought forth everything I have learned about staying present, and tuning in to loving awareness. I felt so scared, but I stayed in the awareness I have been cultivating for years.
I have been aware of myself transforming rapidly since George Floyd died. I’m becoming more willing to speak up, to show up, and to stand up for what I feel is right. It is not comfortable, but I practice yoga to stabilize the systems of my being, to create a safe space for the transformation to take place. It’s another duality. There is a grounding in my being that allows the shaking to happen.
No matter which direction you look at it from, the already broken trust between the police and administration of this city and its citizens is deteriorating rapidly. Maybe your part to play, dear yogi, is not to go out in the streets on the front line. Maybe you don’t even feel yourself aligning with those that choose to protest. Maybe you do, and maybe I’ll see you out there. Whatever happens, I want to urge the strong hearts and hands of this community to maintain awareness. Stay steady. Keep peace in your heart, but don’t lose awareness of the moment. The humanity of this city is on the line, and while we are all infinite, we are also finite. We are human. This moment is real. This movement is real. We are real.
I encourage you to seek out raw footage and first-hand accounts of the protests. The following accounts continue to share valuable resources:
Richmond Transparency and Accountability Project
Richmond Community Bail Fund
RVA Mental Health Solidarity
Join the author and others in practicing Kundalini Yoga and Meditation online every Wednesday from 9:15-10:30 am. Register here.
Begins June 28…Register here!
A family of postures that I am thankful for are the squats including malasana, also known as garland pose or yogi squat along with a multitude of variations including the pose pictured here, Chakra Mandala.
Squats connect us to our root, aka our feet. Experiences in life can literally knock us off our feet and shake our sense of safety and connection to self and the ground under our feet. This can come by way of traumatic or adverse experiences or gradually overtime due to repetitive motion. Repetitive motion injuries can even result from yoga, as in the case of a practice that overly emphasizes forward folding over back body activation. This off kilter stance can become habitual and unconscious but can be corrected through therapeutic experiences, such as a daily squatting practice.
When we are ungrounded, we are literally destabilized, not solid in our movement. Our mind /body/spirit pattern reveals a distrust or fear of squarely planting ourselves in our lives, in our bodies and on the earth. Injuries resulting from yoga asana which appear gradually overtime can be understood as the amplification of our distortions so that they can enter conscious awareness and thereby become workable. If we are paying attention, curious and compassionate, we can meet our injuries/distortions with responsive care and seize an opportunity for deeper healing. This may mean changing our practice (more squatting, less passive stretching) or seeking professional help via a physical therapist (who in many cases will instruct you to squat) for correction and healing. It also may mean revisiting past aversive experiences leading to imbalances in posture in gate, also perhaps with the help of a professional mental health therapist.
Squatting puts us back on top of our feet, creating a renewed sense of strength, integration and stability. If done skillfully, with attention to the feet, squats such as Chakra Mandala (pictured above) can rebalance the pelvic floor and sacrum, leaving us feeling centered, on point and powerful, supported by the earth without distortion.
Izzy Shurte is a PYR Ambassador. She teaches Bhakti Flow every Sunday at 10:30 am. Register for it here.
Shortly after the coronavirus escalated in the United States, Harvard Medical School recommended yoga and meditation to help cope with anxiety associated with the pandemic. I want to share six practices I’ve found to be helpful in quelling anxiety as well as share a bit about the yogic philosophy behind these exercises for those who wish to dig deeper. If you prefer to get right to the practice, feel free to skip ahead.
Gunas: Tomas, Rajas and Sattva
In yogic philosophy, everything you can see or touch in the physical world is composed of three interwoven strands called gunas. Tomas is the guna with a lethargic, inert or dark energy. Rajas is passion, high energy, perhaps with a scattering of chaos. Sattva is the fertile middle ground between the two, a space which promotes health, healing, learning and mindfulness.
Consider the gunas symbolized by the reflection of a full moon above a lake. Tomas has no reflection as the lake water is too muddy and dark clouds shield the moon. Rajas: skies and water are clear but a strong wind blows, rippling the lake, the reflected moonlight splinters in the water. Sattva: a full moon reflected in still waters. While Tomas shares attributes of depression, Rajas can resemble anxiety. Sattva is a place of well being and “zone of tolerance” for mental health. Depression and anxiety are an expected part of every healthy human’s existence and can exist within Sattva’s “zone” to some extent. Dancing over the line is fine, but it’s best not to dwell there.
Doshas: Vata, Pita and Kapha
Of the three body types–or doshas–in Ayurveda, Rajas aligns most closely with the Vata dosha, represented by the air element. If this air element is too much and Vata becomes unbalanced, anxiety can result. Everyone has all three doshas as part of their constitution, with the other doshas being Pita (fire element) and Kapha (earth element). No matter which dosha is most prevalent in one’s being, we all feel anxiety.
If we move this ancient philosophy into the Western model of understanding health, we can begin to see how the Rajas and Vata might trigger the sympathetic nervous system, commonly referred to as “flight, fright or freeze.” Although a necessary part of the nervous system, we only really want to “hang” here when necessary, as the body does best when the sympathetic, or “rest and digest” system, is more active.
Even before the spread of the coronavirus, I was of firm belief that we’re living in an age of anxiety. Western Civilization (which noted yogi Ghandi once said he considered “a good idea”) can be hectic and stressful. Many of us keep extremely busy schedules and sense we never have enough time to accomplish what we want. With new ways of communicating, twenty-four hour news cycles and the advent of social media, we are faced with new and sudden demands for constantly being “on.” Your next email, text or Instagram notification is always a ding away. Somewhere Pavlov’s dog is laughing. What is lost here is an undemanding, Sattva-like space that once existed between things, moments, events. Other than youth this might be the only thing I miss about the 90’s.
I consider myself fortunate for rarely feeling anxiety, however there have been several days during this pandemic when my stress has drastically spiked. It feels like trying to fly a kite while a speeding train splits through my mind and all the monkeys declare war, throwing feces everywhere. This is not my ideal way to spend a morning. (Note to self: bananas, need more bananas.)
Anyway, with those battle scars somewhat fresh I thought I’d share some practices and tips that may help with anxiety. Grounding practices focused on one’s connection to the earth may help when Rajas is too strong or Vata becomes too unbalanced. A sense of grounded connection with the earth can help those with Vata dispositions. This connection might feel especially severed now when we consider the coronavirus has come from this earth, which usually provides a sense of safety, security and sustainability. In a sense, we may feel as if the rug has been pulled from beneath our feet. Sometimes I am reminded that yoga is not all rainbows and unicorns. Earth can have her dark moments too. Perhaps an important thing to consider during all of this is having a sense that the universe still has our back.
Practice #1: Lowering the forehead
As a yoga teacher, I often say that the breath is the quickest way to calm the nervous system. However, lowering the forehead may provide even quicker access to the sympathetic nervous system. Polyvagal Theory suggests that the nervous system has a direct link to social interaction and expressions displayed on the face. The nerves of the face are the ones closest to the brain, so our reactions to external stimuli are first displayed here. If one were to become surprised or shocked, the lines on the forehead wrinkle as the brow rises. Arching eyebrows can raise the breath into the chest and trigger the sympathetic nervous system. Congruently, lowering the brow can naturally bring the breath back into the belly and foster the sympathetic nervous system. (If you are already experiencing heightened anxiety, I suggest skipping the brow raising part of the exercise below.)
Practice: Sit with calm and ease. Notice where you feel your breath and see if you can bring the energy of the breath into the space of the belly for several rounds of breath. Place a palm on your forehead (only touch your face in the safe space of your home, washing your hands before and after this practice) and gently lift the skin on the forehead in an upward direction and hold. Notice. Most likely, your breath has risen into the upper chest. Whatever else you feel here is likely the effects of the sympathetic nervous system engaged. Now pull the hand down lowering forehead flesh and notice what you notice. Most likely the breath has lowered back to the space of the belly. Whatever else you feel is likely the effect of engaging the sympathetic nervous system, where we want to spend most of our time. Spend some time breathing easily with the forehead gently pulled down.
Practice #2: Breathing into the belly
Breathing techniques and pranayamas can help with anxiety. Whenever we practice with the breath we want to make sure we can do it calmly without effort. If anxiety or frustration arises even with calming breath work, I suggest abandoning the practice and returning to a more natural breath. For some, the seat of anxiety may reside in the area of the belly (think “butterflies in the stomach”). This can lead to tight muscles of the abdomen with tension and energetic blockages in the area of the third chakra. Sympathetic nervous system responses shut off the digestive system as the body thinks it has more important and pressing things to do. Overextending our welcome in the sympathetic nervous system can ultimately lead to digestive issues.
Practice: Sit well or lay in constructive rest (knees bent and feet on mat/floor). Place your hands on your belly. Inhale naturally, allowing the belly to expand. Upon exhalation, allow the belly to slowly move back toward the spine. With your next inhalation, sense the organs of your lower torso expand and fill with vitality and new energy. As you exhale, feel a sense of relaxation and nourishment as areas of tension near the belly ease. Notice the slow, rhythmic motion of the breath as you continue to breathe, sensing as the lower organs gently massage with the breath. If you’re comfortable, extend the duration of your exhalation so that it is longer than your inhalation. As our heart rate and blood pressure rise with every inhalation, we can encourage the benefits of the sympathetic nervous system by extending our exhalations, lowering our heart rate and blood pressure.
If extending the exhalation brings anxiety or dis-ease, stay with a breath that has equal length inhalation and exhalation. Find a count that works best for you. For me, a 1-1 count seems to trigger a sense of anxiety, but start with whatever seems sustainable to you. See if you can eventually work up to a 5-5 count. If 5-5 is too much, come back to 4-4. Once you find your count, you may expand the practice by working with extending the exhalation. Anxiety is commonly linked to a fear of the future, focusing on your breath directly links you to the present moment.
Perhaps consider how you are in the present moment. Is there a roof over your head? Food in the fridge? Are you surrounded by loved ones or pets during the lockdown? If we stay in the present and have a sense of gratitude, the mind is less likely to wander the treacherous minefield of the future. Can we find a sense of contentment in the here and now? Remember, the future has yet to happen. Our possibilities remain limitless. We can only breathe in the present.
Practice #3: Make an intention
An intention for your practice that focuses on always being aware of which part of your body is in contact with the mat (which we can consider as a connection with Earth) can be beneficial for all practitioners, especially those that might be more Vata in nature. Let this intention become a tether for your practice, noticing where you are rooted to the earth during every pose. Vatas may sometimes desire a fast and active practice, perhaps “meeting themselves where they are,” hoping to exhaust themselves so they can eventually rest in savasana. Remember we wish to relax in yoga, not collapse. A slow and steady practice may be most beneficial for the Vata in all of us.
Practice #4: Grounding
Stand in mountain pose while gently squeezing a yoga block between the thighs. This may be enough. If so inclined, try a slow sun salutation (or modified one without downward dog) while keeping the block in place. Don’t worry if it feels awkward or if the block falls to the ground at any point or if the feet feel too close during downward dog. Remember it’s a practice, not a perfection. Stomping the feet while in mountain pose creates resiliency for the skeletal system (where a sense of safety generally resides) and can help the feet feel extra connected to the mat.
Practice #5: Bone meditation
Recent studies have shown that the first place in the body that reacts to stress is the bones. (Think “feeling it in the bones.”) We might think of the bones as somewhat static in nature, but when the skeletal system feels threatened, the bones react first by flooding the blood system with an enzyme that triggers the adrenal glands. Finding comfort and ease in our bones can be grounding and promote health in our entire being.
Practice: Sit with Ahdi mudra, gesture of primordial stillness, with the thumbs tucked inside gently closed fists. Rest the fists on the thighs, slightly move the elbows away from the torso, creating space under the arms and allow the shoulders to rest down. Notice where you feel the breath. Notice your “sitz” bones (the “loopy bones“ at the bottom of the pelvis). Feel their connection upon whatever you are sitting. Notice the bones of the pelvis spread wide with your inhalation, especially at the sacrum (the five fused vertebrae of the pelvis). Keep the width at the sacrum as you exhale, sensing the hip joints gently moving toward each other. Allow the breath to fill at the belly and sense the energy of the breath move in a downward direction, filling the pelvis and coating the bones of the pelvis, legs and feet, as well as all the muscles, ligaments and tendons of the lower body, bringing a sense of ease to all parts of the lower body. Notice yourself grounded from the waist down, finding stillness. Imagine yourself journeying barefooted into a wilderness area, the earth cool and supporting every step along your journey. Perhaps you find a hollowed tree and continue your meditation seated in the safety and comfort of the tree.
Practice #6: Earthing
Allow yourself the pleasure of walking barefoot in nature. Sense how the terrain feels beneath your feet. Perhaps add a walking meditation with the use of mantra. Spending time in nature can be beneficial for the immune system. If you feel uneasy about going to a public park at this time, consider your yard as a safe space and practice there. Plant a garden while barefoot.
Other calming practices include using weighted blankets across the lap while seated. Coloring, perhaps using mandalas, can help focus the mind and strengthen concentration. Humming can help tone the Vagus nerve (stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system), as can splashing cold water on the face or body. If you don’t feel comfortable humming in your house, fearing your house mate/s might think you’ve lost it, consider humming while driving.
Dan Weiseman is a PYR Ambassador who can sometimes be found doing somatic practices on river rocks or walking backward in woodlands. He’ll begin teaching a bi-weekly restorative class on Mondays in June. Visit our schedule to register!
by Dan Weiseman
These two Chinese characters signify danger and opportunity. Together, they form the word “crisis.” Crisis incites fear, which is entirely natural as the body is designed to feel fear for survival. When safety is removed however, fear often finds space to reside. We may begin to create anxiety-fueled stories about the imagined circumstances before us and how they will all unfold. Miserably, no doubt. We become frantic, pessimistic, doomsday-fiction writers. The continuous loop of fear, the stories we fool ourselves with and rising anxiety can hijack the nervous system, distracting us from life’s sweetness. While we should never feel ashamed for feeling fearful (or anything, for that matter), we must challenge ourselves to understand fear as temporary without allowing it to take root and flourish to flight.
Thanks to the inherent righteousness of cliches, we know what every cloud has. Or we may have heard that when one door closes, another opens. We’ve been told when it is always darkest.
The universe is always pecking. Can we hear it? Even now?
I believe our beloved Project Yoga Richmond has heard the pecking. I recently watched a PYR workshop with Dr. Ariele Foster and was thrilled to discover that people from around the globe were tuning in with us. Since going online, PYR has the opportunity to reach a larger audience, which could help fund or expand current outreach programs.
Other opportunities springing from this crisis need no further evidence than the planet healing all around us. Ozone holes vanishing. Himalayan mountains appearing. Fish doing backflips in Venice canals. Shortly after Virginia issued the stay at home order, the James River was as blue as I had ever seen it.
I take inspiration from the James. It keeps rolling, regardless of the day’s news. Spring still blossoms everywhere. Nature finds the opportunity to heal with our pause, almost shockingly quickly. Do we dare follow suit?
This is not to say one should feel panicked if they do not sense opportunity at this time. I don’t mean opportunity as some kind of “go-getter coffee achiever” moment bringing great financial reward and robust swashbuckling adventures in venture capitalism. We’ve had enough of that in the world and by entirely too few.
The world is united in trauma that’s heavy with grief. Perhaps now the opportunity is to feel that and move through it. Perhaps now, for some, simply maintaining is our opportunity. An opportunity to forgive ourselves for however we feel, for the ping and the pong and all the points in between. Perhaps now, in this reset, we pause and reflect like Arjuna before battle. Do our actions align with our beliefs? Can there be a deeper integrity between the two? How?
Perhaps we deepen our felt sense with our practices, re-examine our own well-being, sense of joy and compassion and reaffirm what is truly important to us. Maybe we consider our dharma: our life’s purpose?
I’ve recently begun walking backward along the trails of the James River Park. I began this practice for physical reasons. The Chinese are considered the first culture to realize that we do 99% of our actions moving forward, leading to short and tight muscles in the front of the body, and long and overstretched muscles in the back of the body (with the calves being the misnomer to this duality). I’ve made this a walking meditation as well, seeing if I could sense my feet kissing the earth, stepping with a mantra.
Initially, I hid this from people I approached on the trail. I looked back to check for puddles on the path or to sense the bend in the trail ahead and if I saw other people, I’d turn around. What would folks think? An older gent hoofing the woods backward in light drizzle? A sure sign the end times are upon us. I wasn’t in the woods to trouble people further.
By the third day of this practice, I was enjoying it so much I took 1,500 backward steps, up from 500 from the previous days. I no longer cared if anyone noticed. When I passed a woman pushing a child in a stroller, she asked, much to my delight, if I was trying to return to the past.
“I’m trying to get back to November,” I offered. When we met on the next loop around, I was walking forward again. “No longer fearful of the future, I see,” she said.
The truth is: I wasn’t. But not because I was walking forward. Walking backward had somehow helped ease my sense of fear, an almost invisible fear I hadn’t even realized was there. Perhaps it was an act of finding peace while backing blindly into the future.
Now, my fear is not that we won’t return to “normal” soon enough. It’s that we’ll fall back to our limited, problematic “normalcy” without learning or changing anything.
What can we change before we go back? Are there stories you have inherited as truths, which have never really served you, that you can abandon?
Charles Darwin’s book The Origin of the Species is probably best known for it’s “survival of the fittest” framework of human evolution. This concept dances so well with our capitalist system and society. And it is mentioned in his book…twice. Love–its role and necessity in our evolution–is mentioned 95 times.
No matter the crisis, may we always remember that at the very least, or perhaps the very most, the opportunity for love is always present.
Dan Weiseman is a PYR Ambassador who can sometimes be found doing somatic practices on river rocks or walking backward in woodlands.